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Court Orders Tennessee To Equalize Teacher Salaries

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Two years after it struck down Tennessee's school-finance formula as inequitable, the state supreme court is trying to level the playing field for public school teachers.

The court last month ordered the state to equalize teachers' salaries in addition to revamping its overall funding scheme--a move that is expected to cost the state more than $20 million.

This may be the first such ruling handed down by a state court. G. Alan Hickrod, the director of the Center for the Study of Educational Finance at Illinois State University, said he did not know of any other instances where states were ordered to remedy salary disparities, noting that courts usually focus more generally on how state aid is divided among districts.

In 1993, the state supreme court struck down Tennessee's school-finance formula, concluding that it violated the state constitution by short-changing small, rural districts. (See Education Week, March 31, 1993.)

The year before that decision, however, the legislature enacted the Basic Education Program, a funding scheme inspired by the lawsuit and designed to even out disparities between wealthy urban and suburban school systems and their poorer neighbors. The plan is being put in place over five years, with full funding expected by 1997-98.

Part of the Equation

But the new formula did not include a mechanism for equalizing teachers' salaries, which differ by about $16,000 between wealthy and poor districts.

Philip McSween, a lawyer for the 77 school systems that challenged the state formula, said the plaintiffs went back to the courts to ask that provisions equalizing teacher pay--which were in the state's earliest plan for reforming its funding system--be implemented.

The districts also asked the courts to require the state to provide money for capital improvements, guarantee a minimum level of local support for schools, and immediately provide the $500 million needed to fully pay for the new formula.

The supreme court rejected those requests, but ruled that the state's effort to reform its funding scheme would be futile if teachers' salaries were not part of the equation.

Justice Lyle Reid, who wrote the unanimous opinion for the court, rejected state officials' position that teacher pay does not affect student performance.

He said that teachers "are the most important component of any education plan or system, and compensation is, at least, a significant factor determining a teacher's place of employment."

Justice Reid concluded that "the failure to provide for the equalization of teachers' salaries...puts the entire plan at risk functionally, and therefore, legally."

A Drive Away for Pay?

Kathy Woodall, the president of the Tennessee Education Association, said the decision showed "there could be no equity unless teachers' pay was part of it."

There are now wide disparities in teachers' salaries among Tennessee districts--an issue that is a primary concern for rural and small school systems, Mr. McSween said.

"Teachers could basically make 50 percent more if they just drove to another district," he said.

Experience Counts

In Alcoa, for instance, the average salary is more than $39,000--the highest in the state, Ms. Woodall said. At the other end of the scale is Bells, where teachers earn an average of about $23,000 a year.

The statewide average is roughly $32,000 a year.

The plaintiffs have proposed that all teachers be paid at least 95 percent of the state average for teachers at their respective levels of training and experience. Union officials said they expect the state to bring salaries within 90 percent of the average.

Training and experience would still be factors in determining pay, and a teacher on the lowest step of the pay schedule would earn less than the overall statewide average in most districts, Ms. Woodall added.

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